Middle Eastern food is close to my heart, as you might know if you’ve seen my post on Common Mallow, so it was exciting to learn that my partner and a colleague had been given permission to harvest the olive trees growing on the beautifully planted university campus where they work.
However, I didn’t expect much in terms of flavour – or even, frankly, edibility. I and a friend had scrumped olives a few years back from some trees outside of the Royal Festival Hall in London and, after she’d pickled them, I found them so bitter as to be inedible (that’s me, though, many people like them bitter).
But I like to learn how to prepare something new, and I thought the process would be enjoyable even if the outcome would probably be disappointing, so I agreed to take a portion of the astonishingly huge haul (there must have been at least 15-20kg) of mostly pretty small olives and see what I could come up with.
In our house, the default recipes for Middle Eastern food have to be Palestinian, and a Google search brought up this, which is what I followed.
The first stage was to bash each olive individually so that it cracks open a bit – a laborious process that demands you have the radio on if you’re to occupy the mind and remain sane. For the bashing implement I used the thick end of a wooden pestle, though there are no doubt better tools for this job – just not to hand in my kitchen. The bashing is to allow water into the flesh and counteract its natural bitterness.
The next stage is to soak the olives for two days, changing the water every 12 hours. It turns out that my friend had not soaked our Festival Hall olives at all, which perhaps explains why I found them unpleasant. She likes them that way. Hmph. Anyway, my palate-memory still stinging from that experience, I soaked mine for about 36 hours in the end, wanting to give them the best chance of losing the extreme bitterness, and figuring that English-grown olives might need that extra time beyond what the recipe recommended.
Next is the pickling stage – no cooking required, just popping the olives into jars in a brine solution, along with whatever flavouring you fancy – I added garlic, lemon, chilli and a few cumin seeds. And that’s that. After a couple of weeks open and seal with a thin layer of olive oil, the recipe says.
So the verdict? Against my predictions, a huge success. Being Kent-grown, these olives are tiddlers, more stone than flesh, but in fact they turned out to be well worth the bother, and the bitterness is well within acceptable limits. They make a great Mediterranean breakfast with boiled egg, olive oil and za’atar.
This has been a revelation, and a real pleasure. We’ve now added to our list of Middle Eastern foods that we can actually make from plants grown here in Kent: olives, molokhia and – to be detailed in a future post – sumac, one of my favourite spices.